Ben was concerned, having spotted Will’s slight limp as they walked back into town. “You are in discomfort?”
“A bit,” Will admitted. “Blisters. I don’t think I’m completely used to moving around as a human being yet. Certainly not in hide shoes, anyway. Flying was easier.”
Ben smirked. “You do have two legs? Functional and complete?” Will nodded. “Be thankful for that fact. Not everyone is as fortunate…” He fell into stride beside Will, and the two of them moved on, back towards the bunkhouse in which Will had taken up temporary residence.
The crowd around them, which had been slowly dissolving into clusters of twos and threes, was still abuzz over the events of the evening, and Will was doing his level best to ignore the sidelong glances in his direction. There was a sudden parting of the throng in front of them, and the two of them were almost run over by Manuel, the simpleminded and often-drunken young man who did chores at Luther’s. He was sprinting at top speed through the crowd in pursuit of only he knew what; veering suddenly towards Ben and Will, he pirouetted aside at the last possible moment with surprising dexterity, and skidded to a stop.
He hooted with delight, grinned widely at Will, and reached into the neck of his deerskin shirt, pulling out a shiny triangular pendant on a rawhide cord. “Silver is safety!” he gabbled in his strange, sonorous accent, then was gone up the street in a flash.
Ben stared after him, shaking his head in mute disapproval. They walked on. “In truth, you and I have had little time for small talk lately,” he mused. “It has all been warfare, meetings, and miracles. I feel I have been remiss in my duties as host. Have you any questions about our community? Any concerns?”
Actually, Will did have a question, one he’d been mulling over ever since overhearing Ben’s conversation with Ammerman in the forest clearing. He couldn’t, however, figure out how to ask it. “Haven seems…fine,” he said. “People seem nice enough. As far as I can tell. I mean, I’ve got nothing to compare it to.” He tapped a finger on the side of his temple. “No memories, you know.”
Ben looked at Will reassuringly and nodded. “It must be strange. Perhaps they will return to you, in time. I hope you will keep me appraised. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
Will felt his opportunity slipping away. Time for the direct approach. “Actually, Ben, I did have one question.”
“Who are the Seraphim?”
Ben’s stride never broke, but there was a long pause in the conversation. At length, he spoke. “Where did you hear of them?”
Well, from you, technically. Will hesitated, fumbled for a lie, composed one―and it died on the way to his mouth, simply refused to be born. Ben was looking at him oddly. Will felt his right hand wander to his cheek, his fingers rubbing at a spot beside his eye. He opted for a half-truth instead. “It was…in a conversation involving John Ammerman,” he said, phrasing it as carefully as he could.
“Ah,” Ben muttered. “Yes, of course. It would be him, wouldn’t it?” Ben flicked a bit of dust from his tunic. “The word itself―Seraphim―comes from terrestrial religious lore. Several Earth religions used the term to refer to angels. Here on Elysium, the term is primarily used by the hillmen.” He nodded to a passerby, then continued. “There are many different tribes of hillmen, with many different sets of superstitions, but all of them seem to have the Seraphim as a common element. They are alleged to be supernatural beings of the most immense power, capable of travel between worlds, both in standard space and on the Axis of Eternity. Some call them monsters and tricksters, others call them ‘Shepherds of the Light,’and hold that they intervene for us on God’s behalf. The Mencks, for instance, believe that they created all of Elysium.”
“And what do you think?”
“The truth be told, Will,” he replied, airily, “I don’t think much about them at all. I am very much absorbed in the mundane, in the project of building a new society. I leave existential speculation of this sort to the likes of Mr. Ammerman.” He paused. “Are you, in fact, listening to me? Will?” Will started, guiltily; he hadn’t been. His attention had been arrested by shock of dark hair and a slender, female form up ahead. It was unmistakably Emily, strolling and laughing with a narrow-shouldered figure. As her companion turned to her and laughed, Will spied a head of slicked-back strawberry blond hair, a spade-shaped beard on his chin, and felt a pang of completely irrational loathing. One of Ammerman’s, isn’t he?
Ben followed Will’s gaze, then nodded knowingly. “Ah. Clearly not.” Will reddened, but Ben smiled. “Chin up, Will. It has been centuries, but I was a young man once as well.” He nodded. “Go to her. We’ll converse more later.” Will nodded thanks, then took up off the street at a brisk jog, the blister on his heel completely forgotten.
Is he holding her hand? Is he? Will was catching up rapidly now. He’s not. Oh, good grief, what is he wearing? Is that a waistcoat? He’s wearing a waistcoat? Where the hell did he even find one of those? Is that…is he carrying an actual WALKING STICK? At the sound of his approaching footsteps, Emily began to turn. Don’t smile, he thought suddenly. Don’t smile at me, or I’ll fall down right here in the street.
Louis was chattering about nothing as only he could when she heard the racing feet behind her. Emily turned. Ah, she thought. There he is. The Hairy Little Bastard puts in an appearance at last.
Emily had been doing her level best over the previous two days to assume a veneer of apathy. When told of the Hairy Little Bastard’s miraculous resurrection, she had shrugged her shoulders and seethed inside. Of course, she’d thought. It makes perfect sense. He’s been able to do it all along; he just sandbagged so I wouldn’t know what he was. When invited to his introduction to the community, she had begged off on the grounds that she’d made a prior commitment with Louis. This had been news to Louis, and welcome news, apparently; there was evidently pretty much nobody else who shared his fascination with the comings and goings of the local celebrities, with the dictates of local fashion, with the latest scandalous gossip. He’s sweet, she thought, and he’s enjoyably nasty in a harmless sort of way, and he makes me laugh. And he’s cute enough, I suppose. And he knocks the bad thoughts right out of my brain, in part because I can feel huge chunks of it die every time he opens his mouth.
But Rosemary had been insistent, and had reminded her of what Madeleine was giving up, and Emily had quite liked Madeleine the one time they’d met. And so she had brought Louis along with her, and she’d insisted that they take up a spot deep in the crowd, and she’d watched and grinned as the Hairy Little Bastard had sputtered his way through the thing, until finally Phillip had offered him a job as a farmhand just to put him out of the community’s collective misery.
But alas, he had not taken the hint, and here he was, goggling at her from underneath that big thick mop of hair, and grinning stupidly as if he had ever in his life done anything but lie to her. And it was time to stomp the hell out of him. “Well,” she said, venom dripping from her voice, “look who’s listening in again.”
He opened his mouth and nothing came out. He closed his mouth, then opened it again for another go. “I…I wasn’t…”
Idiot. She held up a hand―Ben’s gesture of command from the town meetings. For Ben, it had often been futile. For her, it worked; the little monkey stopped cold. “Louis,” she said, “go on ahead without me. I’ll catch up to you later.” He nodded, darting Will a brief glance of unmistakable contempt, then turned back to her and essayed a ridiculous little formal bow, supporting himself gracefully on that little hickory stick he carried. She couldn’t help but giggle a bit. Turning back to―Will? Was that his name?—she saw him shoot Louis a look of unrestrained rage, and she almost giggled again. But Louis was upright again and ambling foppishly away, and it was not time for giggles anymore. Because there is nothing funny about the Hairy Little Bastard, and there is nothing funny about being lied to…
As the walking, talking turd ambled away, Will turned back to Emily, who was still not smiling. In fact, she was not smiling about as vigorously as a person could not smile. “Did you have something you wanted to say to me?” she said, eventually. “Or do you just want to stand there and let me pour my heart out to you again, like an idiot?”
Will was dumbstruck. In truth, ever since incarnating the second time, he had been fumbling about for a satisfactory explanation regarding his lie about his gender. He had eventually concocted a complicated story involving fragmentary memories of a drag role in a high school play, a misunderstanding involving the name ‘Chris’, and an appreciation for Disney musicals that turned out to have been motivated all along by his unusually refined and sophisticated taste in modern music and by his deep personal sensitivity towards and appreciation of the teenage female perspective and which might at first glance seem incredibly sketchy and creeper-ish but, when you really think about it, wasn’t that way at all. It had been masterpiece of deception, but it was all for naught, because the whole thing had evaporated from his brain under the heat of her stare. “I, uh…yeah…about that…”
“You knew,” she said. “You knew, damned well, the whole damned time. You knew who I thought you were. Who I thought I was talking to.” Her eyes flashed anger. “You knew I thought you were a girl, right from the start. You knew it. You confirmed it. And yet you sat there, and just let me chatter away. I trusted you!”
Will was off-balance. “I know. I know…look. Does it even matter, really…I mean…”
“It matters to me!” she almost shouted. “I told you that I was tired of being patronized and ogled. I told you I didn’t need another man in my life. But I guess you decided differently. I guess you decided you knew what I needed.”
“I didn’t mean that! I only meant that…” he reached out dramatically, groping blindly at the air to emphasize the point that he wasn’t making.
“I’ve done nothing to deserve this,” she continued. “NOTHING. And it turns out I was right all along, wasn’t I? I thought I couldn’t confide in men, couldn’t trust them. And it turns out I can’t.” Will tried to grab hold of the conversation, but it slipped away from him again; Emily was in a towering rage, she was at the wheel, and she wasn’t going to relinquish it to anybody. “Did you enjoy it? Listening to me babble like a little girl?”
“Yes!” Her eyes widened with outrage. “I mean, no!” Even ragey-er. “I mean, I don’t, I didn’t mean…” The observer inside Will’s head had set up shop at a safe distance from the conversation and was offering a running commentary. Wow. Look at her face. Her whole face turns completely red when she gets angry. She looks like a sugar beet.
“I’ll admit,” she fumed, “it makes a lot more sense now. All of that stuff in orbit, and in space. Making yourself my teacher. Throwing yourself in front of monsters. What did you figure? That I’d flutter my eyelashes and go, ‘Oh, my heroic rescuer! Whatever can I do to thank you?’” Suddenly, her eyes went wide and her jaw dropped. “When I incarnated! You saw me naked!”
“No! No! I thought―I thought you were a guy!” Her hands balled up into fists. “Before! Before you incarnated, with the psychovores, I thought you were a guy! I mean, it was obvious that you were a girl, once I saw you…”
“Oh was it???”
“No! I mean, not the naked thing…that’s not how I…I mean, look, if you think it’ll make us even, you can see me…oh, God…”
Emily was literally shaking with rage. Will shut his mouth, and ducked into the conversational equivalent of a protective crouch. Let her talk, offered his mental observer, who was still doing play-by-play. Just let her talk. She’s better at it than you. Then again, it would be hard for anyone to be worse.
He was just sort of sitting there spluttering now, a pathetic little ball of fur and fail. He’s amazing, she thought. Every time he opens his mouth, he comes up with the most offensive possible combination of words. It’s a rare gift.
But now he wasn’t saying anything at all; he was just sort of standing there, looking absolutely crushed. And something in Emily―perhaps it was a princess thought, she was too angry to assess it at the moment―felt a little ashamed. One of us has to be the adult, she thought. And it’s not going to be the half-shaved monkey in front of you. So let’s back the steamroller up for a moment and see what he has to say for himself.
“Listen to me, all right?” he blurted. And, to his credit, it didn’t come out as a whine. “Just…just listen. Like I did. Whatever else I did wrong―I, I did that. I did listen.”
She couldn’t help herself. She had to twist the knife. “Yes, Will. Yes, you sure did.”
“Stop it,” he snapped. She felt her eyes go wide; she opened her mouth, but somehow the twerp got his shot off first: “Remember what you once told me about how men pretend to listen while they’re thinking of what to say next?” The point sunk in. She closed her mouth, folded her arms. “Just…you’ve said plenty, and you’ve got a right to, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to you, ever, so give me this much time. Actually listen. All right?”
All right, she thought. One point to the Hairy Little Bastard. So have your say. And then we will decide whether we let you live.
He gathered himself, took a deep breath. “Look. What I did was wrong. I’m not even going to attempt to excuse it. I just want you to understand it.” He swallowed, continued. “From the time we arrived here, I’ve done nothing right, Emily. Nothing. I’ve been completely helpless and useless. More helpless than a baby, even. I mean, a baby could…could cry or something, let people know it was hurt. I couldn’t even do that. I couldn’t communicate, couldn’t incarnate. I could do nothing right. Nothing. And people were polite enough, I guess, but…I mean, you were there, you remember what it was like! Even Rosemary―basically, it was like I was a charity case or something. Like I was this broken thing that she was trying to fix.”
And…yes. Yes, he has a point there. Rosemary does do that. And Emily was thinking about when she’d been helpless―a flailing, pitiful thing, swallowed by darkness, screaming at herself to stop being so pathetic―and how a glowing soul has reached out to her and guided her. An entity of what had seemed to her to be perfect grace and infinite giving―which had somehow turned out to be…this.
“You were the only one that was different,” he continued. He still couldn’t make himself look up at her. “I mean…I couldn’t do anything, anything at all, but…but you needed someone to listen. And I could do that. I could do that. I could…help somebody. I served some purpose. And I was going to lose that, just because I was a guy…because of something I had no control over…and it wasn’t…it wasn’t…”
“Will.” He finally looked up. His eyes were narrow, strange, a shade of brown that was almost black. And behind them, well…maybe she could see still see her buddy there. Well-hidden. Well-disguised. Buried deep. But…maybe.
“Will.” She spoke slowly, carefully. “Don’t you think you could have trusted me to decide for myself who I could talk to? Even if you think my standards for deciding are wrong, or, or childish…” And they were. And you know they were. Damnit. “…don’t you respect me enough to let me decide?”
“Respect you? Emily…Emily remembering nothing, even knowing nothing about myself or anything else…the one thing I know is that I respect you. The way you make a moment yours. The way you refuse to be broken, the way you lock in on injustice and refuse to let it go unrecognized. The way you care about people even when they’ve nothing to offer you in return. Who else would apologize for saying “YOLO” to someone who couldn’t incarnate? Emily, nobody could spend any time with you, at all, could listen to you, at all, and not respect you.”
It’s just stupid flattery. He doesn’t mean it.
But it’s working.
And then, a realization. These things he’s saying…he’s saying all the things I want to be true about me. And when I tell myself they’re true, I don’t believe it. Not really.
But when HE says them to me…when HE says these things about me, I DO believe them.
And that’s pathetic. That’s the princess-iest bullshit ever.
I have to stop listening.
But she couldn’t. The Hairy Little Bastard still couldn’t look her in the eye; he was staring off numbly into the middle distance, afraid, but his mouth was still running. “And…you’re right. It doesn’t matter what your reasons were. You get to decide who you confide in.” He took a deep breath. “And I was wrong to try to lie my way into your confidence. But Emily…it wasn’t every boy in the world who did that. It was just me. All right? So even if you can’t trust me anymore…and I guess I can see how you wouldn’t…don’t stop trusting all men, okay? It was me. Not them.”
I have to stop listening. I have to stop listening to him RIGHT NOW.
“I just wanted, so much, for you to have someone to talk to. I mean, after you told me about how you used to tell everything to Brianna…”
He spoke her name, a name he’d taken from her under false pretenses, the most precious memory she had, and he had stolen it, and suddenly everything soft and mushy inside her went hard, and she felt her ears slam shut. Thank you, she thought. And the anger was back, and she wrapped it around herself like a cape, and she was invulnerable.
It had seemed to Will that he’d done something right for a change. It had seemed to him, as her face had faded from scarlet to pink, that he had undone some of the pain he’d caused. It had even seemed to him that he was being allowed to see the real Emily again―not a glowing, joyful version, but the Emily that had existed in that moment, not a crude facsimile she’d composed for public consumption.
But he’d somehow botched it again. Her face was scarlet. Her tone was sepulchral, her voice even, each word a slap. “Now. You. Listen. To. Me. Carefully.” She was shaking slightly, her eyes full of rage. “You. Are. NOT. BRIANNA.” He knew better than to reply. She took a deep breath. “You cheated. Those stories. Out of me.” A long silence. “You don’t get. To be her. You don’t get to so much as speak her name. Not you. Not ever.”
Will stood mute while Emily gathered the shreds of her composure about her. She had a lot of composure. It made him sick to think of what it must have taken to make her lose it. But when she looked up again, she was dry-eyed, stable and serene.
“You say you lied to me because you wanted to get to know me. Well, now you do. You know that sometimes I say things I would probably be better off keeping inside me. You know that I sometimes don’t live up to my own expectations. And you know that I do not like being manipulated.” She took a deep breath. “I guess you and I both have a lot to rediscover about ourselves. This will do for a start. I can’t say I appreciate your tactics, Will. But I do know myself a little better now. And I thank you for the lesson.”
All Will could do was nod. Then it came bubbling out of him, unbidden. “I’m…I’m not dishonest,” he blurted. “Not…not fundamentally, I mean. I…I really don’t think I am.”
She pursed her lips, exhaled slowly. “I think…you’re probably right about that, Will,” she said. She smirked, raised an eyebrow. “A really dishonest person would have handled this situation a lot more smoothly, wouldn’t he?”
What could he say? It was perfectly true.
She sighed, looking him over. “What is it you want, Will?”
Yet another question to which I have no good answer. He tried anyway. “To start over again.” He extended his hand. “Hi, I’m Will. I’m sixteen years old.”
She gave a sad little smile at that. Not her smile, but a smile. “I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that, Will.” She glanced down at his hand, still dangling embarrassingly in midair. Slowly, he withdrew it. She looked at him. “This…” Another sigh. Then, more quietly, “This whole situation. It really hasn’t been fair for either of us, has it?”
“But right at this moment,” she said, “fairness isn’t the most important thing, is it?”
“No,” he said, quietly.
Will and Emily looked at each other. All around them in the street, the passersby were moving on, a river of people drifting by.
“I need you to go away for a while, Will,” Emily said. He heard no cruelty in her voice; she was merely stating a fact. “Whether you’ve done anything wrong or not, regardless of whose fault it is, I need to not be around you for a while. Can you understand that? Can you accept it?” He felt like he’d been stabbed. He nodded. He didn’t know what else to do.
“And I need you to understand one more thing about me before you go,” she added. “I really, really don’t need to be rescued, Will. I don’t need someone to lie to me for my own good, or to chase off monsters for me. I want to handle the monsters. Me. Nobody else. I need to know who I am.”
“And who you can be,” he replied, automatically.
It took her by surprise. Her expression was puzzled, then her eyes widened for a moment. “The Redoubt. That’s what I said when…” Her mouth folded into a tight line, then her expression went carefully blank. “Well. I did say you were a good listener.” She turned to go.
“Emily,” Will said. She turned back. He was sure that he’d thought of something really poetic and eloquent to say, but by the time she looked at him, he’d already forgotten what it was. Memory has never been my strong suit. He filled the gap with the first thing that came into his head. “Ammerman…Ask Ammerman who the Seraphim are,” he blurted.
She nodded. And then she turned, slipped into the river of people, and was gone.
And that’s one less Hairy Little Bastard to worry about, Emily thought. He tried to leverage his way back into her brain, but she was off and away. She didn’t need him, or any other man, to validate her.
I thought I couldn’t trust men, she reflected. And I was right. There’s a lot of HLBs here, and I’ve seen their true faces. The liar. The tyrant. The psychopath. And I will be damned, I will just be damned, if I’m going to allow them to tell me what to think. Or with whom I ought to be spending my time.
I am going to find out where all the women are. I am going to be the person the women of Haven turn to when they’re ready to be themselves. I am going to show this whole community what a woman can be. That means being the strongest, toughest, best version of myself. That means making use of the knowledge others shun.
God help me, that means Ammerman.